Saturday, July 14, 2012

A year in rewind

This past year I returned from Uganda, said goodbye to Vermont and moved to Washington, DC where I've spent the better part of 10 months settling into a new home and job. I am reminded how much can happen in a year; how much life can teach us in a microcosm.

My new job at EcoAgriculture Partners in Washington DC has enabled me to continue to work on the issues that matter to conservation and humanity. Primarily how to produce food, save the world's biodiversity and improve human livelihoods. There's some goals for ya. Our projects include working with smallholder palm oil producers in Sumatra, Indonesia to save the last remaining Peat Swamp forests of their region; the Xingu Basin of Matto Grasso State, Brazil where rapid soy expansion threatens the mighty Amazon; and Ghana, training cocoa farmers to improve their practices, income and livelihoods. My job is to provide Monitoring and Evaluation support for this portfolio of projects. I ask, "are we having the impact we said we would?" These are tough questions to answer. We would like to think so, but context matters, nothing is ever straightforward, and despite our best intentions things don't always work out the way we'd hope they would.

Below are a few pictures from my travels this past year. I made my first trip to southeast Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia), back to Africa (Kenya) via Turkey, and to the United Kingdom (Shetland, Scotland and London). It was an exciting year of learning, love, birth, matrimony, joy, experience and sadness. I hope and pray that the next year will continue to teach and reward me.

1. Oil palm expansion in Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia
2. Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
3. Shetland Isles, Scotland, United Kingdom
4. Workshop with producers in Kijabe, Kenya at KENVO center

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Freedom in Creation farm

Five deep in the backseat I unpack myself slowly from the musty station wagon taxi cab, grab my bags and walk towards the gates of the Sipi Falls River Lodge in southeastern Uganda. Some three months later, the Gulu leg of my journey is finished. The few days ahead will offer time to rest, reflect, write and prepare as I travel home to Georgia on Thursday. After my colleague at Freedom in Creation, Andrew Briggs’ departure in March I spent the next two months working with local leaders to design and implement a model farm in the Koro Abili community of northeast Uganda. In three months we were able to accomplish the following in this order:

• Clearing and fencing a 4.5 acre piece of brushy land
• Constructing two thatched roof huts, finished with grey mud smearing
• Drilling one deep well borehole
• A three-stall latrine and bathhouse
• Clearing and double plowing 3 acres ready for planting
• An 8 stall piggery complete with 10x30 grain/tool storage unit
• Clearing, digging and planting 135 banana trees intercropped with pineapple and yellow beans
• Digging holes and planting 155 trees (lucaena, calliandra, African mahogany, grevillea robusta, niem, sambia, acacia, oranges, mangos, avacados, jack fruit)
• 1 volleyball court
• 1 acre intercropped maize and beans,
• Half acre orange-fleshed sweet potato, white, red and Irish potato
• 1 acre soy bean
• ½ acre assorted vegetables (sunflower, onion, carrot, tomato, eggplant, cabbage and dodo)
• 1 hedge row of 50 grevillea trees
• .10 acre orange orchard intercropped with yellow bean
• Two gates, one steel and one wood.
• Hiring two full-time farm assistants and one full time program manager
• Established management plan including program budgeting and evaluation methods

At our final gathering on Sunday the parents gathered around to hear from our leaders about the intention of the project in relation to their children. All were in support. As I looked on I saw many grandparents, older women in their traditional dresses settled comfortably on papyrus matts, who were now the sole caretakers of orphaned children. Peter, my friend from Gulu, commented that for many of these older parents projects like this offered a sense of optimism and relief for a successful future for their children. After a time for feedback, I was offered the last word as the project director and resident mazungu. I told them my story. How I learned about Freedom in Creation. Why I was there and what our intention was for the project. The purpose of our farm is to: 1) create a local source of long-term revenue for our program. 2) serve as a model for best practices and extension in row crops, pig and poultry production to our children and area farmers. 3) offer a means by which to build community capacity through micro-enterprise development, intercultural exchange, education and training. After more than three months of haggling over paid day wages and concrete prices amongst 14% inflation I wanted to be frank. This project would not be handing anything out. It was a business. And in northern Uganda, if done properly, farming could be lucrative. With one of the highest population rates in east Africa the demand for food, fiber and fuel was well established. For example, in the Gulu market you couldn’t find pork past 10am. By our calculations the return on investment for the piggery would be somewhere around 2-3 years. Our banana patch should net 1.5 million shillings after 14 months and our soy and maize yields will shield us from high dry season prices, while our orange-fleshed sweet potato provides a rich source of vitamin A for our children. The opportunities exist and with organization, some small working capital and determination anything is possible. This was our example. We’ll build from here, with both challenges and triumphs.

In exhilaration watching Nigeria topple Argentina in soccer, the guy at my table sprays me with water jostling me from my blogging daze. Since January, I’ve traveled to more than seven countries, spending four months in Africa. This continent has taught me so much. In brief, it has taught me about the strength of women in society, the delicate interface between humans and wildlife and the daily struggle against poverty and political injustice. It has certainly been an eventful time to lay my head on the mother continent. Whether reading the Daily Monitor, The Independent or watching Al Jazeera, my perspective of politics, news and current events has, for at least the past few months been… African.

Witnessing the events of Egypt, Libya and other northern African countries had spurred a “Walk to Work” campaign in Uganda. Led by former political presidential candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye, people were walking to protest the high fuel and food prices, which president Yoweri Musevini’s government had done seemingly little to address. These demonstrations were violently put down by acts of force by police and the president’s personal thugs. One day, on my way home from work I notice more traffic than usual as I approached Gulu town on my motorcycle. Thinking nothing of it, I turned left to avoid the main street. After cutting down a side street I noticed the streets littered with stones and tires. Approaching the next intersection I quickly realized that to my left was a crowd of running protesters and to my right, a police battalion dressed in riot gear pushing steadily forward. One officer looked me squarely yelling, “ Muzungu, you go, they’re going to kill you.” As you can imagine this quickly sparked my retreat. I turned right approaching the main street roundabout. The streets were barricaded and as I quickly descended I felt a sharp burning in my eyes. I had drove through a cloud of tear gas. After arriving safely at a nearby hotel. I weathered the storm until my friend Peter arrived. Throughout the evening, tear gas cannons and shouting could be overheard. In Kampala, four people had died. Not since 2004 and the political coups of Quito, Ecuador had I experienced protests of this nature. People attempting to walk peacefully in protest of government were forcefully put down in what in recent years was touted as an East African democratic success story. In light of other events this one continues, barely making the African section of most major newspapers.

Corruption and a 30-year rule of another African big man puts Uganda precipitously perched on the brink of societal unrest. In this case the Ugandan military stands firmly planted at Museveni’s side. Change by mass uprising would result in great bloodshed. The likely scenario is the same as before, a reluctant wait for the next elections (2016) and hope for change. Listening to the frustrations of my Ugandan friends; smart, energetic and motivated individuals distraught with their country, the corruption and their seemingly inability to create a more desirable future dampers my own optimism. I can only stand by them hoping that this cycle of disparity is soon broken. The realization of this struggle is a lesson not soon forgotten. It is one being played out throughout the world in all degrees of intensity.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Below are pictures from a week long trip I took to Rwanda to visit my friend Michel who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society. We had an opportunity to visit Volcanoes National Park in the northeast to trek mountain gorillas and Nyungwe Mountain Forest in the southwest to view colobus monkeys. Rwanda truly is the land of a million hills, where terraced hillsides of potato and maize, meet tea filled valleys. An amalgamation of people, agriculture, mountains and protected forests make this one of the most remarkable landscapes I've ever visited.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In search of ... water

The path is dusty, narrow and crooked, as we make our way by motorcycle to a remote village in the Ugandan bush. Three deep, in front of me sits the driver and Steven, a young boy of fourteen from our Freedom in Creation (FIC) art program. Steven is taking us to his village to see about a broken water well. Leaving the school we are now more than two miles away, which gives me an idea of just how far some of our children travel to participate. At the end of class today we asked them to speak up if they were aware of a water need in their community.

In northern Uganda, a now peaceful region impacted by more than 20 years of war, water remains the most fundamental building block for development. Water dictates for many whether or not they can go home. Water is a women's issue, with women and girls responsible for walking miles with heavy jerry cans to collect for the household. Water is a health issue. In 2008, more than 80% of diseases in this region were waterborne such as cholera, typhoid, diarrhea and malaria. And much like the arid climate of the American southwest, here in the dry season of Uganda, water is life for all creatures.

The motorcycle comes to a grinding stop. We've arrived in Steven's home village of five small straw huts, a smoldering fire and people gathered around under the shade of the sole mango tree. The boy's parents spring up from their papyrus matts to greet us. After greetings we follow the steps of a community elder through the brush to the broken borehole. We arrive some ten minutes later to find the well has been spoiled from a dropped pipe. We ask Steven where his mom gets her water, he continues down the cassava lined path. Some fifteen minutes later we arrive to find a small swampy hole, guarded by elephant grass on the edge of the forest. Here Steven kneels to tell us about this open source that serves as the primary water source for his community of 100 people. After a few minutes of documentation we learn that many in the village are experiencing waterborne illnesses, including severe diarrhea, cholera and malaria. We turn to walk home. My heavy eyes lift to the sunset silhouette of eucalyptus trees against the African sky. I wish I could say that this was my first experience, but I would be wrong. This is the second such case this week. Steven has been in our art program for more than four years now. From the clean, bright blue concrete walls of our classroom all we can see is his smiling face, ambition to learn, grow and become a man of his community. What we cannot see is his village, his family and his living conditions. We make no promises to the community, only that we will document what we have seen and try to help.

For six years now, Freedom in Creation has worked to raise awareness around these issues through the exhibition of the children's artwork and academic collaborations. Internationally FIC builds bridges; locally we return proceeds to communities like Stevens to provide fresh water for drinking, art as therapy for former child soldiers and education for a bright and peaceful future. The statistics are daunting. The United Nations claims that of all the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, that in the goal to provide sustainable access to safe drinking water to those who need it we are the farthest behind. Over a billion people worldwide lack access, yet this goal is the most obtainable. Certainly, if there is one thing that my short time in Uganda has taught me it is that this need is the most basic.

Thank you for your attention, introspection and proactive thinking. As we approach World Water Day, March 22nd here are a few things I thought about that we can all do… but I would love to hear from you.

RAISE AWARENESS, turn to your neighbor, a stranger or a friend to EDUCATE OTHERS with a story, fact or video about water, sing a song on the street, draw a mural, write a rap, research on the internet, give a presentation to your co-workers at lunch time, pray or meditate, ACT, write a letter to your local newspaper or congress person about foreign aid, the farm bill and water, CONSERVE, try using only 5 gallons (the daily amount of an African) of water for all your household chores, give up beef for a day (cattle drink a lot and agriculture accounts for more than 70% of water use on earth, so buy local produce, take shorter showers, forget about watering the lawn, ride a bike across country for water awareness, be conscious, ready to learn and MAKE A SMALL FINANCIAL COMMITMENT to a reputable organization who works in water development, give up or complement that five dollar a day latte with the gift of water... at $2500-4000 a well for a 1000 people, it really does make a difference. Finally, and if nothing else, simply tell others in the international community....

Why you are thankful for water?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gulu, Uganda

We have arrived in Gulu to the modest home of our gracious host Peter Odoch and his wife Naomi. My head is filled with dust, my nose, tainted by the smoke of burning fields and my eyes wide open to the daily life of rural Africa. Today I met the kids, the instructors and saw our Freedom in Creation building for the first time. It is a moment I have anticipated for over four years since first meeting Andrew and learning about the child soldiers of northern Uganda. The children greeted us in song and the instructors assigned unto me an Acholi name, "Ochen, the one who came after." The kids are beautiful, attentive, full of life, warm smiles and motivation. Around 20 or so children gathered around to watch me gnaw a piece of sugarcane. We presented to them the collaborative banners from the US, Ghana and South Africa along with an explanation of our journey around the world by ship in the name of "Freedom in Creation". The kids were engaged and excited to know that those in the international community are thinking of them. As we gathered with leaders afterwards to discuss the program and month ahead I am reminded of the challenges of development. Mismanagement and the history of "aid" reliance runs deep, but this is solidarity not charity. Our staff is strong, competent and ready to move forward with greater clarity and purpose than before. With diligence the next month will involve the hiring of full time staff, the clearing of land, drilling boreholes and collaborative art projects. The time is short; we must make each day count.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Searching for Equality in Cape Town

With my feet firmly on land my new found equilibrium brings clarity in reflection. The past few months have been a whirlwind of new countries, people and experiences. These experiences have challenged me in new ways, bringing broad global processes into local perspective. From the demand for sugarcane biofuels, land tenure and farmers of the Amazon region Brazil, cocoa farming and the slave trade of Ghana, and the post Apartheid townships of South Africa there is never a substitute for personal experience. Ultimately it's what defines our world view, our perspective and for some of us.. our call to action.

Cape Town, South Africa is undoubtedly one of the most stunning cities I will ever visit. Sheltered by Table Mountain, the sage brush juniper landscape of the American southwest meets a rocky coastline, scattered with houses, posh waterfront restaurants and the newly constructed World Cup soccer stadium. The air was dry and hot with each passing day as beautiful as the last. Wow, so this is South Africa. On day two we ventured into the vineyards of the Western Cape. The most famous being Stellenbosch with its well established vineyards a relic of the agricultural expansion of the Afrikaan past and a symbolic icon of South Africa's prosperous economic future with a brand for the world's finest wines.

On day three I visited Robben Island the once British tool for silencing political patriots such as Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and now president Jacob Zuma. The visit proved insightful in understanding the hardships of the apartheid era and the struggle for freedom in South Africa. As our guide mentioned, the roots of oppression run deep and require a generation by generation approach to complete integration and equality. Will the BEC, the Affirmative Action of South Africa bring integration or discourage national unity? Traveling from the shi shi shops of the white Cape Town waterfront to the slums of a black Cape Town township the next day I quickly understood the struggle ahead for true equality. Less than two weeks ago I was at the dungeons of Western Africa's principal source for the transcontinental slave trade and now in a country that less than 20 years ago stood divided by color. Do the the same inequalities now divide us by class, opportunities for health care, education and economic opportunity? Will the people rise up as they are now in Egypt and Libya to demand basic freedoms? History will soon write itself.

Our final day was the ultimate reward as students from the Freedom in Creation Chapter at Semester at Sea, Andrew and I undertook an art project with kids from the Capricorn Primary School, a model school in a Cape Town township. As Andrew and I disembark the ship in Cape Town and head to Uganda I must say that I am forever grateful for Semester at Sea program. The interactions with students, faculty, and life long learners were a source of great encouragement to myself and our work in Uganda. I hope they too find the journey a source of optimism, paradigm shifting thought and inspiration for action.

Today we relax and write emails from Uganda's capital Kampala. Tomorrow we move onward to Gulu. Another chapter begins.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ghana by bus

• Fresh off ship, large containers and trucks filled with cocoa, the smell of vinegar and fermentation, Takoradi taxi, Sunday market, charcoal and plantains, paint and burning rubber, hot sun hustling, STC bus to Kumasi, 5 hour ride, sit and stare at the countryside, THIS is Africa

• Kumasi, Presbyterian guest house, cooler nights, eggs and toast, new day, largest open air market in W. Africa, plastic bowls, cow hooves, kente cloth, assorted clothing, hordes of people, overpopulated? pungent odors, decaying trash bags, voices, claustrophobia, equatorial heat and sweat, 70% of the world will be urban by 2050, will it all be like this?

• Visited a cocoa farm today, rich resources of cocoa and fruit trees, economic poverty and illiteracy, lots of questions, certifications and value to small farmer livelihoods, six deep taxi ride, police checkpoints mishaps, returning in a pile of dust, parched mouth and lips, eyes wide open

• Africa is beautiful chaos, smiling faces, dark skin, people, books and culture, Kente cloth, bright colors, long tradition, pride of the Asanti kingdom, kings and weavers, twee not English

• Accra, the capital of Ghana, traffic, fumes, women carrying goods for sale, tattered buildings, no skyscrapers, long taxi rides, more cedis, road projects, bustling all hours, the next Cape Town? polite children in school uniforms, parents picking up their kids from school, ordinary people, paint, dirty hands, smiling faces, intercultural exchange, love, understanding, travel, Freedom in Creation.

• Touring the castle and dungeons of Cape Coast, 16th century history, millions of slaves, British, Portuguese, Spanish, human capital, cheap commodities, profit, pitch black dungeons, 15 x 45ft / 200 + men, feces, flies, no food or water, death for many, slavery for the rest, a minority rules the weak, system perpetuates injustices, economic oppression… modern day times, cocoa, mining, brick making, farmer households and child labor, governments, multinationals and the poor, has slavery ended?

• Fufu with Ron and Gretchen, shade = shelter from the equatorial sun, reflection on the days behind, new friends, one last taxi ride and conversation, filth and exhaustion, back in Takoradi, the ship, farewell Ghana

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

From Brazil to Ghana

Crossing the Atlantic brings forth an odd sense of grandeur. Certainly a moment in life where the world (in this case the Atlantic ocean) becomes bigger than I am, humbling me enough to pause, close out the chaos and appreciate the moment of crossing such a large body of water by ship. It’s been three weeks onboard. Andrew and I have been busy giving lectures about our work with Freedom in Creation in Uganda, coffee and conservation in Dominican Republic, ecological economics, child soldiers and conflict and nonprofit management to a ship board community of 600. Over 50 students have stepped forward to get involved; either to host a FIC chapter at their school, start a collaborative art project or to bring the "Story of Freedom" exhibit to their home community. The excitement is palpable. The opportunity to share, to learn and to travel to new countries continues to enrich my worldview as it regards people, politics and development.

We spent ten days in Amazonia, Brazil; six along the river and four in the bustling port town of Manaus. The air was thick with humidity, the sun equatorial and the people I encountered; open to share their way of life. Along the way we had the opportunity to interact with diplomats at the US Embassy and visiting lecturers from the University of Amazonia. Our conversations were rich as we discussed Brazil’s status as a rising international superpower, the on coming demand for biofuels, avoided deforestation, flavella uprisings in Rio, trade policies and the Brazilian socio-political systems. Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016, which will provide the country with its ultimate test to become, rather than forever to be called, "the country of the future."

We are now just three days from Ghana. Today we learned that over 60% of the world’s cocoa comes from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Child slavery is an issue and one the industry has reluctantly chose to deal with sufficiently. See the BBC film "Chocolate: The Bitter Truth." As we cross the Atlantic we must reflect that there are more people today in slavery than there were at the time of the transatlantic slave trade. We have to do more! Much as in coffee; traceability, monitoring and evaluation is difficult. Fair Trade certification plays an important role in addressing some of these issues. As consumers we must demand this kind of due diligience from companies with our purchases. This Valentines day, tell Cadbury, Nestle and Mars they can do more. Purchase only certified products!! More from Ghana soon.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Confronting the Coffee Crisis

In response to a talk I gave Carra Lee posted a nice blog entry in hopes to inform those back home. Check it out.

Confronting The Coffee Crises:

On our way to Brazil, the largest coffee exporter in the world, we had the opportunity to listen to Lee Gross explain his Masters research on small scale coffee production in the Dominican Republic. We are traveling down the Amazon River on the ML Explorer with the Spring 2011 Semester At Sea voyage learning new concepts from the theme: Thinking Globally to Acting Locally on a daily basis.

Lee Gross sharing research on Spring 2011 Semester At Sea
The information Lee shared was really an awakening for me to really embrace the concept of supporting “Certified Fair Trade” products.

I must admit I have been on the outside looking in with really understanding the importance of using my consumer dollar to support the environment and small scale farming families. Lee’s presentation “connected the dots” for me in understanding why we should buy “Certified Fair Trade” products.
Interesting facts about coffee production:
• 25 million families are “sustained” by coffee and its connected production products
• Shade grown coffee helps with soil conservation, provides habitat for bird life and consumptive fruits to families
• Brazil produces 1/3 of the world’s coffee
• Small production farms would be the size of a backyard in an American subdivision.
• Coffee is handpicked by millions of laborers and grows in remote mountainous areas. The largest cost to bring the coffee to market is the transportation by mule to the cooperative and export overseas
• Coffee is harvested only one time a year which creates a cash flow problem for small farmers
• Coffee is the 2nd most traded commodity in the world behind OIL
• Most small coffee growers receive $1 to $1.40 per pound
• President John F. Kennedy started the ICA International Coffee Agreement regulating coffee prices
• In 1989 the ICA was terminated which has resulted in an extremely volatile coffee market
• It takes 5-7 years from planting a coffee tree to harvest
• Farmers have all the risk with weather, disease and pests
• 63% of the coffee market is controlled by 5 big corporations: ie. Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, Nestles, Tchibo. who in 2001 at the heart of the coffee crisis experienced significant earnings
• Coffee can be differentiated through specialty coffee organizations, which purchase the highest quality coffee i.e. Starbucks, Green Mountain, Cooperative Coffees, Peats Coffee. Coffee can also be differentiated by purchasing single origin coffees
• Fair Trade is a certification, which ensures that farmers are paid a minimum price ($1.38-$1.50) plus a social premium for good practices, democracy in organization and additional premiums for organic production. Coffee by any roaster can be Fair Trade certified
• Certified Fair Trades growers have to produce products under specific condition to obtain the certification
• Many developing countries spend more in military expenses than in the education of their people
• There is no incentive to grow organic so only the consumer can help the farmers by paying more for certified products
• Organic certifications certify the productions method
• Fair Trade certifications certify the process of trade (i.e. labor practices, minimum price, transparency, etc.
• Many farmers do not have title to their land and cannot obtain loans
How can you help make a difference in supporting small farmers? Follow the links below for a cliff note lesson!

1. Read about the Certified Fair Trade products, Specialty Coffees and Relationship Coffees. Don’t buy coffee in a can. Know where it comes from and that workers were paid a fair price. Buy certified and single origin coffees. Be a conscious consumer, your dollar speaks!

2. Be willing to pay more to help the environment and sustainability of the world. Support companies who can ensure transparency in process, social and environmental best practices.
3. Learn more about injustice happening everywhere and share with your friends.

Coffee bean sorting
When I posted information about the class and helping small coffee growers on facebook the first person to comment was my friend Sadie Harris from France. She has been buying Certified Fair Trade products for years and makes a conscious effort to support the movement. Many Europeans are acutely aware of how this impacts the world. Traveling around the world, learning from educators in all fields of sustainability is certainly helping me connect more dots! We are taking the global lessons and applying them to our local practices!

One person DOES make a difference and if that person shares with one other person who becomes aware of the environment and injustice then modifies their buying behavior the world can change. Remember to Buy Certified Fair Trade Products!

I am excited to hear back from you! Read all the links and then let us know how it touched your life and what you are doing to share?

This post took days to finish with the bad Internet connection so thank you for your patience! More to come Connecting The Dots Around The World! Be sure to check out the contest to visit one of the seven wonders of the world!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Semester at Sea

The blogging has begun. First, a thanks to all who supported me to make this trip possible. The first few weeks have been busy with orientations, lectures and getting my sea legs. Leaving the Caribbean island country of Dominica offers time to reflect on the week behind. For those of you I forgot to say goodbye to, allow me to explain that I have joined the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program’s faculty as an interport lecturer with my friend Andrew Briggs. Andrew and I are here to share our global development experience. Andrew is an alumni of the program and has since gone on to found, Freedom in Creation (FIC), a nonprofit working with war afflicted children in northern Uganda through art as therapy, water development and education. I’ve supported Andrew for a number of years, now as a board member, while continuing my own work with coffee farming communities and conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Semester at Sea is truly a one of a kind study abroad opportunity. Our contribution as lecturers will be to provide students with some real world applications for their theoretical studies as they circumnavigate the globe on this four-month journey. Our travels over the next month will take us from The Bahamas to Cape town, South Africa via Dominica, Brazil and Ghana. After our arrival in Cape Town on February 23rd Andrew and I will fly to Uganda where we will spend two months supporting FIC's programs in Gulu.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Small is Beautiful in Amsterdam

On my way to Amsterdam I read “Small is Beautiful” by German economist E.F. Schumacher. Schumacher says,

"from an economic point of view the central concept of wisdom is permanence. Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities."

Now biking through the streets of Amsterdam I can only ponder it's wisdom in urban design. Separate lanes full of bikers and pedestrians, buses and trams, few cars and tight narrow boat canals for channeling people rapidly through this bustling city of hashish, art, food and amusement. As an American I am humbled by the wisdom of European life which has for centuries allowed its proliferation from a limited natural resource base. There is no denying European expansion beyond its boundaries for needs, but out of this scarcity has come conservation, or a "wiser use of resources." I think about our global society, one pushing the very thresholds of its planetary confines. But do we see it as such? Schumacher pronounces,

“ that the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one's dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.”

In America we have much to learn from history and from our mother Europe, a much wiser and older continent. I feel as if we are a stubborn child that first must fall down and cry before being picked up, brushed off and patted forward in the right direction. I pray we are fast learners. As a global society we need collective agreement on planetary boundaries and a renewed focus on the production from local resources for local needs for the peace, prosperity and permanence of civilization.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Te lo cuido

"I'll take care of it for you" were the words uttered by my friend Cameran's next door neighbor as she departed her home leaving her motorscooter behind. Yet another a reminder that Dominicans are some of the most hospitable people on earth. A culture so utterly hilarious it makes you content with every passing moment.

I will start with an apology as this is my first blog from the DR on the last day of my trip. The reality is... it was as full and exciting as I anticipated, challenging me in new ways to grow personally and professionally. My first week was spent presenting the results of my research to development organizations (USAID) in Santo Domingo, organizing meetings for Vermont Coffee Company with the local coffee association in Jarabacoa, and hosting a focus group with the community at Finca Alta Gracia. Everything came full circle. My lips spoke many promises during my time here which have now all been kept. This was important to me as a researcher.

I am committed to see the processes started on this trip through to fruition. As a result of our meetings there will be significant increases in the purchases of shade organic coffee from the Pico Duarte region. Encouraging farmers with higher prices who practice organic agriculture under shade tree cover should discourage those from abandoning their coffee for high input monoculture crops such as squash and beans. When replicated across the landscape these changes can restore ecosystem function to increase water conservation, reduce soil erosion, provide habitat for birds and provisions of food to households.

Financial transparency in process and diversification of income and consumption will be critical to the sustainability of rural livelihoods and the landscape. 80% of coffee farmer households in the Pico Duarte are food insecure. Tradeoffs exist between day labor and time to produce food crops for consumption. Migration is high, so is the costs of labor and simply providing higher prices for a product is not enough to meet families basic needs. Less than 4% of 161 people surveyed go to college, 21% finished high school and many households lack the basic resources needed to pay for proper medical attention during times of illness. In this multi capital asset approach to the "well-being" of a household we must do more.

In response volunteers at the farm "Fina Alta Gracia" Ria Shroff and Eli Berman along with owners Bill Eichner and Julia Alvarez created a Dominican nonprofit, the Alta Gracia Foundation. The foundation will serve the coffee communities of the Pico Duarte through a variety of social programs from literacy education to agriculture extension and small business micro-finance. A percentage of all coffee proceeds sold under the Cafe Alta Gracia brand will go to the foundation. A partnership between a for-profit business and non-for-profit organization should ensure long term financial stability while allowing for the flexibility to meet local needs and desires.

Returning to the States tomorrow I can only hope that as I start my schedule on Monday I am more cognizant of the social, economic and environmental interconnection of this world. A world where even as I leave for my home more than 2000 miles away I can turn and make one final promise to my Dominican companions, "te lo cuido", I'll take care of it for you...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The help that Haiti needs.

The ONE campaign has started a debt cancellation petition addressed to the US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. I know many of you have been supportive of the Jubilee Movement in Africa and understand the role of debt incurring international loans, not project specific grants for development.

Haiti's financial and ecological debt serve its greatest challenge in the years ahead. As millions of dollars in relief pour into Haiti in the coming weeks and months debt cancellation is an option that should be explored as part of aid packages to chart a long-term vision for Haiti's future.

Authors Jared Diamond in "Collapse" and Tracy Kidder in "Mountain beyond Mountains" present excellent biographies of Hiati's political and ecological history. Haiti's current state is strongly tied to its exhausted resource base as a result of colonization by the French, strong private property rights based on subsistance farming and corrupt political dictatorships in recent decades.

A new course for Haiti's recovery should be supportive of programs that address the link between sustainable resource management, human health and well-being. There are a number of organizations working on these fronts such as Partners in Health, TREES for the Future, Oxfam International and the United Nations Development Programme.

I am constantly reminded of Wangari Mathai's quote from above, "Suppressed, hungry and poverty stricken people are not concerned by environmental degradation even though they are the first victims of environmental degradation." The people of Haiti live in constant recognition of this truth in their daily struggle for survival. International response to alleviate the short term suffering of natural disasters while meeting long term goals to develop, improve governance, political stability, and meet basic human rights (food, education, sanitation) serve the greatest challenge of this new decade. Haiti is long overdue for such a concerted international response. How will we respond?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gund Institute presents CRF-sponsored research at ESA meeting

Lee Gross of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics recently presented a poster at the Ecological Society of America’s Millennium Conference on “Water-Ecosystem Services, Drought and Environmental Justice” in Athens, Georgia. Results from a year-long study, supported by the Conservation and Research Foundation, were presented on the relationship between ecosystem services conservation and farmer livelihoods in the Pico Duarte coffee region of the Dominican Republic. Community partners included Finca Alta Gracia, IDIAF (a Dominican agroforestry research institute), and the 160 member Association of Coffee Producers in Jarabacoa (ASCAJA). Baseline information on livelihoods, farm biodiversity and agroecological management was collected through household surveys, community focus groups and farm biodiversity transects from 43 households in 7 communities. Preliminary findings suggest that smallholder farms under shade and organic management yielded significant levels of native tree and fruit species biodiversity compared to that of larger producers. Integrated strategies to support smallholder farmers who practice ecosystem service conservation (e.g., provision of fresh water, biodiversity protection, and carbon sequestration) are being evaluated. For more detailed information on this project see the Eco-Index.